Elinor Ostrom: Nobel wisdom on local climate solutions

“Professor Ostrom?” 


“This is Adam Smith, calling from Stockholm.” 

“Oh, you have quite a name!”


The phone call occurred in October 2009, when Elinor Ostrom, the late Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science, was asleep. The call was from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, notifying her that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences. Ostrom, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 78, was the first woman to receive the Nobel in economics.

A decade has passed. This October, Ostrom‘s Nobel was celebrated at Indiana University, unveiling a new historical marker of her legacy on the IU campus and anticipating the statue of her in 2020. 

Back in 2009, the Nobel announcement took many by surprise, even Ostrom herself. On the news of receiving a Nobel prize, she admitted that she was “flabbergasted.” But to her friends and colleagues at IU and around the world, “Lin” Ostrom was already a living legend, a well known pioneering social scientist and one of the world’s preeminent scholars on the management of common-pool resources. She was especially renowned for her 1990 landmark and still highly influential book, Governing the Commons. In Lin’s decade-long pioneering research work, she questioned the stereotypical impression that critical common-pool resources, such as air, groundwater, forests, and fisheries, are universally poorly managed by humans. 

Whether there are ways to better manage those resources beyond the domains of the market and the state, has been at the heart of Elinor Ostrom’s work. She started focusing on the governance of natural resources in her dissertation on groundwater in the early 1960s, even though back then, it didn’t appear to her that she was studying the tragedy of the commons. Slowly, Lin saw a very tough problem with groundwater management. For decades, she went on to study how communities across the world, from developing and rural communities like in Nepal and Kenya to developed ones like the USA and Switzerland, manage their commonly shared resources such as fisheries, pasture land, and water sustainably.

Eventually, she became aware of the vast literature of successful self-organization by individual groups. The meta-analysis of this literature led her to co-develop the concept of “polycentrism” together with her husband Vincent Ostrom, who was a prominent political science scholar himself. Elinor Ostrom had faith in the ability of the individual and community that they are capable of cultivating mutual trust and take the right course of action independent from the guidance (or no guidance) of the governments. Therefore, She advocates self-organized leadership and efforts by individuals, communities, local governments, and local NGOs, as opposed to concentrating power at global or national levels, held by either the state or privatized. Therefore, Lin proposed community self-organized, polycentric governance to be a third path to governing these commons. 


A new Historical Marker dedicated to Professor Elinor Ostrom, unveiled by Indiana University. The Marker is located in front of Woodburn Hall, the home of the Department of Political Sciences, where Elinor Ostrom contributed her decade-long research and teaching. Image source: author Jieling Liu

At the later stage of her study, Ostrom shifted her focus on the commons towards the grander scale – the man-made climate change and proposed using a “polycentric approach” to address it. In Ostrom’s view, efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions are a classic collective action problem that is best addressed at multiple scales and levels. Although she emphasized that there are no “optimal” solutions for substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, given the complexity and changing nature of the climate change problem. She had communicated with international organizations or platforms about “polycentrism,” including The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio+20), The Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN, or currently known as The New Humanitarian), on topics concerning climate change, trust, and the power of local action. 

In the background paper that Lin prepared for the 2010 World Development Report on Climate Change, she proposed a polycentric approach to addressing the complex problems of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. She wrote: “…single policies adopted only at a global scale are unlikely to generate sufficient trust among citizens and firms so that collective action can take place comprehensively and transparently that will effectively reduce global warming.” 

Besides, Lin convened that simply recommending a single governmental unit to solve global collective action problems is inherently weak because of free-rider problems. She used the example of the Carbon Development Mechanism (CDM), which, in her view, can be gamed in ways that inflate prices of natural resources and, in some cases, can lead to further natural resource exploitation. Both the CDM and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) program, as Lin noticed, are noticeably vulnerable to the free-rider problem. 

A polycentric approach, she argued, has the main advantage of encouraging experimental efforts at multiple levels, leading to the development of methods for assessing the benefits and costs of particular strategies adopted in one type of ecosystem and compared to results obtained in other types of ecosystems. 


Community group meeting on climate change impacts on boat run by Shidhulai. Natore, Bangladesh. Image source: G.M.B. Akash/PANOS

Furthermore, Lin endorsed the importance of a strong commitment to finding ways of reducing individual emissions for coping with the climate problem, and community actions in small- to medium-scale governance units, given their optimal potential in building trust, sharing information, and monitoring. Indeed, when individuals walk a distance rather than driving it, they maintain better health. At the same time that they reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When cities and counties decide to rehabilitate their energy systems to produce less greenhouse gas emissions, they are reducing not only the amount of pollution in the local region but also greenhouse gas emissions globally.

In Lin’s view, directing the question of climate change primarily at national governments would be insufficient, despite that the international climate agreements possess much importance. Confidence at the global and national level climate coordination misses the point that actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be taken by individuals, communities, cities, states, residents of entire nations, and the world. Besides, she argued that officials at a larger scale are lack of detailed information about problems on a small scale that people are confronted with daily. Thus, the solutions proposed by local people have a better chance of solving climate change problems. Lin emphasized the need to recognize the complexity of the different issues being faced in a wide diversity of regions of the world, as really great solutions that work in one environment might not work in others. 


Lin Ostrom receiving her Prize from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 10 December 2009. Image source: The Nobel Foundation 2009. Photo by Frida Westholm. 

For more about the lives and work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, please visit the webpage of the Ostrom Workshop and see the documentary film “Actual World, Possible Future” produced by Barbara Allen.

Ostrom Workshop: https://ostromworkshop.indiana.edu/index.html
Film Actual World, Possible Future:

This article is originally published on CLIMADS – Women for Climate Action- Mulheres pela Ação Climática in 2019: https://climads.wordpress.com/


  1. Elinor Ostrom. 20 Apr 2016. A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change.  World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 5095. 56 Pages. Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1494833##
  2. Christina Asquith. March 2010. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom on Why Climate Change Solutions Work Best When They’re Local. Solutions. Volume 1, issue 2, page 12-13. ISSN 2154-0926. 
  3. Ostrom Workshop. Home – About Us: 2009 Nobel Prize. Available at: https://ostromworkshop.indiana.edu/about/nobelprize.html
  4. International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Climate change – Community-based adaptation – Empowering communities to adapt to climate change. Available at: https://www.iied.org/empowering-communities-adapt-climate-change 

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